Many Muslims, and other skeptics of Christianity, deny that Jesus actually died on the cross. They promote theories that Jesus had a twin that died, or that someone took Jesus’ place on the cross, or that a drug put Jesus into a coma-like state until he revived in the tomb. What evidence is there that Jesus actually died from crucifixion?
Virtually all historical scholars agree that Jesus died from crucifixion. Historian Michael Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, argues that there are at least four reasons that scholars come to this position.
The first evidence is that Jesus’ death by crucifixion is multiply attested by a fair number of ancient sources, Christian and non-Christian alike. It is very probable that [the Jewish historian] Josephus reported the event in his original version of Antiquities of the Jews 18.3. [The ancient Roman historian] Tacitus, [ancient pagan writers] Lucian and Mara bar Serapion are all certainly aware of the event. Lucian adds that Jesus’ crucifixion took place in Palestine.
In Christian sources, Jesus’ execution is widely reported, with and without specifying the mode of crucifixion. All four canonical Gospels report Jesus’ death by crucifixion as do numerous other books and letters of the New Testament that refer to it regularly. Jesus’ death and/or crucifixion are also abundantly mentioned in noncanonical literature. Moreover, there is no ancient evidence to the contrary.
A second evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the reports are early. Paul mentions Jesus’ death by crucifixion no later than A.D. 55 (1 Corinthians, Galatians) and said he preached the same to those in Corinth in A.D. 51, or within twenty-one years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ death may be alluded to in Q [a hypothetical source for Matthew and Luke], which may be contemporary to Paul. It appears numerous times in the kerygma of the oral formulas. The earliest report of Jesus’ death is found in the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3. Virtually all scholars who have written on the subject hold that Paul here provides tradition about Jesus that he received from others. There is likewise widespread agreement that it was composed very early, reflected what was being taught by the Jerusalem apostles, and is the oldest extant tradition pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus. It is really quite amazing to think that we are probably reading what was taught by the original disciples of Jesus.
A third evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the Passion Narratives appear largely credible given their satisfying of the criterion of embarrassment and the plausibility of certain peripheral details. Earlier we observed that a number of accounts existed of Jewish martyrs who acted bravely under circumstances of extreme torture and execution. In light of these, reports of a weaker Jesus at his arrest and crucifixion could cause embarrassment in contrast. . . .
For this reason, we get a sense that in the canonical Gospels we are reading authentic reports of Jesus’ arrest and death, even if Luke may have cleaned up or omitted some of those embarrassing details, and John all of them, and even if some embellishments are present. Accordingly, the embarrassing elements in the Passion Narratives weigh in favor of the presence of historical kernels. These include, most importantly in our investigation, Jesus’ death by crucifixion.
What are some of the other peripheral details in the Passion Narratives that lend credence to the death of Jesus by crucifixion?
Lucian reports of crowds following those on their way to being crucified and renders plausible Luke’s statement that a crowd of people followed Jesus on his way to being crucified. John reports that because it was the day of preparation for the Passover, the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to remove from their crosses the bodies of Jesus and of the two thieves crucified with him so that they would not remain there on the Sabbath. Pilate granted their request and ordered that their legs be broken in order to expedite death. When they came to break the legs of Jesus, the soldiers noticed that he was already dead and instead pierced his side with a spear, upon which blood and water came out. . . . Breaking the legs of crucified victims is also reported by [ancient Roman orator] Cicero and the [third century apocryphal] Gospel of Peter. In the latter, breaking the legs is forbidden so that the crucified victim would actually suffer longer. The skeletal remains of a crucified victim named Yehohanan ben Hagakol were discovered in Jerusalem in 1968. Of interest is that one of his shins had been smashed, although it has also been theorized that this occurred when removing his corpse from the cross.
The Romans often left crucified victims on their crosses for some time after they had died in order to become food for birds and dogs. However, Josephus provides an interesting report that indicates Jerusalem was an exception. Two or three years prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, mercenaries for Rome killed some Jewish high priests and did not permit their burial. Josephus adds that until then the Jews had taken great care in their burial of the dead, burying the crucified prior to sunset. . . .
John reports that when the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead, rather than break his legs, they pierced him in order to provide some ‘death insurance.’ This too has plausibility, given Quintilian’s statement: Cruces succiduntur, percussos sepeliri carnifex non vetat. (As for those who die on the cross, the executioner does not forbid the burying of those who have been pierced.)